Federal legislation is not the only barrier to the development of embryonic stem cell research in the United States — there are also patents held by the university where they were first created. And now leading researchers are clamouring to have these patents overturned.
Three fundamental patents are held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), based on the work of the scientist who first isolated embryonic stem cells, James Thomson. Now the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, of California, and the Public Patent Foundation, of New York, argue that anyone could have done it. Their contention is supported by some of Thompson’s scientific competitors. In April, the US patent office issued a preliminary ruling rejecting the patents, but the university is appealing it.
The patents were issued in 1998, 2001 and 2006. They deal with the processes used to extract stem cells from embryos and also cover the stem cells themselves. Other researchers have to pay a licensing fee to use the cells, no matter where the cells are obtained. Some scientists contend that the stranglehold of WARF is driving research overseas.
Doug Melton, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, says that Thomson’s achievements came from his access to money and materials, not groundbreaking science: "He deserves recognition because he undertook the arduous and timely task of getting fresh and high quality human embryos to use as starting material in his work and sufficient funding for such research, not because he did anything that was inventive."
Thomson has not entered the fray, but last year he commented: "Some very good, simple ideas only seem obvious afterwards." WARF’s spokesman, Andy Cohn, says that Melton "is not objective on this issue" because he has his own "economic interests" in stem cells.
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